There are few times in life where I have been aware of myself in life, as life, and not as myself observing life. Some people refer to them as peak experiences or moments of insights—a glimpse of everything as perfection and myself as a part of that perfection.
But they have been far too rare and only “glimpses.” I have never experienced those moments by seeking after them, but have merely “found” myself in one. As a child, they came while walking in the woods or just sitting with my back against a tree, watching a squirrel. As an adult, I remember three vivid examples of these divine portals beyond feelings, perceptions, impulses, and words.
One occurred on a late September afternoon, overlooking Canandaigua Lake while standing on the deck of a friend’s condominium built into the side of a steep hill. My hosts and other guests went into the condo, taking with them their happy leaf-peeping party chatter, and I remained, watching a lone tern ride drafts against a dark, cloudy sky. That was all. But time stopped, thoughts stopped, my sense of self stopped—I was exhilarated by an immense joy beyond reason or cause. I wanted to describe it to my companions when I joined them again, but had no words.
Two other experiences happened in far less poetic settings. One day I glanced out the window near my desk, taking a break from my work and computer screen, and noticed my elderly neighbor brushing the snow from his car. I watched for a few minutes that seemed like hours. Nothing happened that I hadn’t seen a million times before, but his slow, attentive, careful, and caring snow brushing penetrated my heart with a simple yet brilliant love for my neighbor, myself, everyone, and everything.
Another time where I experienced the grace of a peek into the perfection of everything was while lying in bed, ill, and in pain. I had been ill for sometime. I was exhausted and depressed by the pain, and the lack of promise for a quick resolution. For some reason, I was able to truly relax “into” the pain, depression, and fear. I was able to be in it, as an experience alone—not characterized as bad, or pain, suffering. At that precise moment, I wasn’t me. For a moment between the rushing screams of thoughts coming from everywhere, there was no me—but there I was and I knew that I was.
Some might describe these experiences as described in the Bible, in Philippians 4:7: "And the peace of God, which passeth all understanding, shall keep your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus."
The Indian Poet Rabindranath Tagore was watching the sun rise in a Calcutta street when he wrote, “suddenly, in a moment, a veil seemed to be lifted from my eyes….There was nothing and no one whom I did not love at that moment.”
From a Buddhist perspective, I think of these of experiences as glimpses of enlightenment, or temporarily experiencing what is referred to as Shunyata, emptiness, or suchness. Someone who has reached total enlightenment is a Buddha. The Buddha referred to himself as Tathagata, which means "one who has thus come" or "one who has thus gone." Either way it means one who resides totally in "suchness."
To truly understand or reside in suchness is, as described in the 5th century Chinese Mahaya scripture, Awakening of Faith in the Mahayana, "the highest wisdom which shines throughout the world, it has true knowledge and a mind resting simply in its own being. It is eternal, blissful, its own self-being and the purest simplicity."
The great prajnaparamita mantra, from The Heart Sutra, praises this enlightenment: “Gate Gate Paragate Parasamgate Bodhi Svaha. Gone, Gone, Gone Beyond, Gone Altogether Beyond, O What An Awakening, All Hail!”
I don't believe that awakening is foreign to us. I believe we have all glimpsed it. The Heart Sutra reassures us that we are in fact the stuff of suchness; we have this enlightenment potential in us because “Whatever is form, that is emptiness; whatever is emptiness that is form.”
This long introduction is a way of initiating a new element of my blog: poetry. I have written lots of poetry over the years and hope I keep writing poetry in the years to come. It is through poetry that I have been able to express my Buddha nature by expressing things exactly as they are. It is only in poetry that I feel I can speak to you without the restriction of the form of words—stopping time, ending the separation between us, and uniting us in the immersion of suchness.
Yes, I use words to write poetry, but the form of these words come from suchness itself, come from all life outside of me, through me, to you. As Shunryu Suzuki said “when you do something, you should burn yourself completely, like a good bonfire, leaving no trace of yourself.”
Whether you like poetry or not, I hope you enjoy the poetry I will occasionally share in this blog and I hope as you read it, "I" will disappear
Today’s Koan: “Manjushri Enters the Gate” – The Iron Flute, Case 1
One day as Manjushri stood outside the gate, the Buddha called to him, “Manjushri, Manjushri, why do you not enter?”
Manjushri relied, “I do not see myself outside. Why enter?”
Some background: In Buddhist mythology, Manjushri is the bodhisattva representing wisdom. A “bodhisattva” (“Bodhi” from the Sanskrit means an enlightened or awakened understanding and “sattva” means a being or spirit) can be roughly translated as a person who is focused on reaching the goal of enlightenment or whose very essence is enlightenment.
This koan describes how the Buddha was testing Manjushri’s understanding of the Buddha’s teachings. But what was he testing? Remember, a koan is a problem that can’t be solved by the intellect or our typical classifications or conceptualizations. The Buddha was not testing Manjushri’s ability to enter a gate, nor the fact that there was a gate to perceived by the senses.
Before digging deeper into Manjushri’s answer, let’s pause and consider what Manjushri represents. He represents wisdom. Wisdom is very different than intellect. I’m sure your life experiences have clearly demonstrated the difference between intellect and wisdom, as you observe your own thinking and the thinking of others. Like the old story goes about a child-turned-adult remarking how much smarter her parents seemed to have gotten.
Manjushri, representing wisdom, answers without even mentioning a gate. This is clearly not an answer of intellect alone, but one of wisdom. It would seem that he must have made the Buddha happy with that answer. He answered from wisdom, from seeing without duality: He did not discriminate between inside the gate and outside the gate.
Rev. Gyomay Kubose’s comment expresses that wisdom this way:
Manjushri replied, in effect, that there is no gate in the world of Truth. Truth is everywhere; he was not outside it. But still, [we feel] that there is a gate. But it is a gateless gate and hard to enter, even though it stand wide open all the time! The gateless gates are numerous—as many as there are people. Each must enter through his own gate.
That is how Rev. Gyomay Kubose helped us work with this koan, but each person must bring his own wisdom to it. How can you use this koan in everyday life? How can you use this koan to break free from thinking ruts, hardened concepts, and judgments?
You can begin by asking yourself where do you see gates? Is it a promotion or other title you’d like to be considered for, but not sure you’d be seen as perfect? Is it another industry or job entirely? Or is it the other way around? Do you see yourself as inside the gate and who outside have you not invited in? And why?
Ask yourself where have you discriminated between inside and outside? What represents “the inside” to you? Money? Position? Security? Being Liked?
What represents the outside? Have you thought to step inside or outside to see what it looks like? Have you really imagined in full detail how it would be to be “on the other side”? Is it where you would like to be? Is it that much different than the ‘side’ you are on now?
And even if you aren’t discriminating between inside and outside a gate, why haven’t you entered? If you sense a gate between what you want and what you don’t have, why haven’t you made steps to enter?
Is there a gate between you and someone else? Why do you think that gate is permanent? Maybe it doesn’t exist at all. Maybe you could just walk through the gate that was wide open all the time and say “Hi.”
When I work with this koan, I end up asking myself, if Manjushri didn’t see himself on outside, then why didn’t he enter?
And that leads me to ask myself where it is I haven’t entered my life fully. Where is it I’m not allowing myself to truly enter into or connect to person in my life or a part of me? Where am I content to be a half-hearted participant in a cause or activity I believe in or where am I just going through the motions of doing something—instead of being fully-engaged—jumping up off the bleachers at the risk of possible failure, embarrassment, or the fear of being seen as different.
Maybe the best practice using this koan is to ask yourself every day, “Where is the gate?” or just “Where?” And also ask “Why should I enter?”
And another is “Where have I put a gate of separation between myself and another; between ‘my group’ and ‘the other?’
Every time you pause to ask yourself to think again, you come one step closer to true wisdom. You come to the place where you don’t see yourself, or anyone else, as outside or inside.
Today’s koan is “Bells and Robes” by Unmon (Case 16)
Zen Master Unmon said: “The world is vast and wide. Why do you put on your robes at the sound of a bell?
A monk in a Zen temple lives a regulated life—much more rigid than our professional lives—or is it?
The koan refers to the meditation hall bell. When it sounds, the monk puts on his robe and goes to the hall.
But Unmon asks, “Why?” Some background: There is a Buddhist saying that whatever comes in through the gates is foreign. The gates are the five senses: sight, smell, hearing, taste, and touch.
As the story goes, if we move and act guided only by the senses, we are following foreign commands. If we see with our eyes only and hear with only our ears, we are living at the command of something other than who we really are—our authentic self.
Some commentators remark on this koan that to really understand our self, we need to see sound. See sound? This is where you need to break the chains of concepts and free your mind to see what that means to you.
How can you use this koan in everyday life? The best way to put this koan to work is to use Unmon’s question as a mantra for a while. Why? Ask yourself, “why?”
Are your days lived following the ‘commands’ whispered to you by social norms? Other people’s professional or personal expectations of you? The siren call of commercialism? The need to be acknowledged or liked through habitual Facebook or Instagram posts and comments … and instant text message responses?
In response to those ‘bells’ in your environment, are you regulated to move, speak, or react without thinking? Without asking, “Why?” Do you frequently feel pressured, nervous, frustrated, or angry? Do you think it may be because you’re doing things based on foreign commands?
Maybe those foreign commands are the only ones you’ve ever heard. Maybe you haven’t looked to see the sound of what’s inside you in a long time—or ever!
Try this: Before the next thing you are about to do … or the next words you are about to say, ask yourself, “Why?” Then look inside to see the sound of the answer. YOUR answer.
I will end with Rev. Gyomay Kubose’s ending comments on this koan:
“…if one settles down firmly in one’s inner life, all actions, feeling, and deeds come from deep within. The unenlightened one does things because he MUST do them; the enlightened one acts because he wants to. Freedom lies in the center of life. Unmon points to the center.”
My dear friend, Julie, posted this blog post recently:
I walk around [a] pond every day at lunch (weather and workload permitting) and today I noticed how I tend to watch my feet. I look down at the paved walkway instead of at the billowy clouds, the cattails and willows swaying in the breeze. Presumably I do this to dodge the abundance of goose poop along the path.
I think watching where I'm going has some value. I think it's good to look down every once in a while to make sure I'm not about to step in some. But where I am is quite beautiful and I shouldn't let the prospect of a little poop on my shoes distract me from all that is praiseworthy about my life as it is in this moment.
When I read Julie's post, I immediately thought of the "earth touching" Buddha or "earth witness" Buddha. The image of the Buddha sitting in meditation with his left hand, palm upright, in his lap, and his right hand touching the earth, has always held special meaning for me.
Julie watching where she is walking, dodging goose poop, served as a mini symbolic teaching of the earth-touching Buddha. At once, the image of watching for goose poop/watching where we're going juxtaposed with looking at the billowy clouds, represented to me the value Buddhism offers as a philosophy of being of the world and being in "things as they are".
According to the story, just before the historical Buddha, Siddhartha Gautama, realized enlightenment, the demon Mara (representing the passions that keep us clinging, craving, and enslaved to suffering) tried to frighten Siddhartha from his seat. But Siddhartha did not move, despite Mara's taunts and claims that he should have the seat of enlightenment for himself, because his spiritual accomplishments were greater than Siddhartha's. Mara's monster army cried that they were Mara's witness of his spiritual priority, so Mara challenged Siddhartha--who will speak for you?
Siddhartha reached out his right hand to touch the earth, and the earth itself rumbled, "I bear you witness!" With that Mara disappeared, the morning star rose in the sky, and Siddhartha Gautama realized enlightenment, becoming the Buddha.
What I love about this story is that it distinguishes Buddhism from religions we are most familiar with. Founding stories of most religions involve gods and angels from heavenly realms bearing scriptures and prophecies. But Buddha's enlightenment was confirmed by the earth.
Compare this connection to the earth with the Abrahamic religions. Jesus, Moses, and Mohammad all claimed the authority of the sky god (the "god of heaven"), Jehovah. And in classic Greco-Roman literature, the chief of the gods is the sky god Zeus/Jupiter. All sky religions are patriarchal and hierarchical
The Buddha did not ask for help from heavenly beings. He asked the earth, "Mother Earth", if you will. Religious historian Karen Armstrong wrote in her book, Buddha (Penguin Putnam, 2001, p. 92), about the earth witness mudra:
"It not only symbolizes Gotama's rejection of Mara's sterile machismo, but makes a profound point that a Buddha does indeed belong to the world. The Dhamma is exacting, but it is not against nature. . . . The man or woman who seeks enlightenment is in tune with the fundamental structure of the universe."
Buddhas and Buddhism belongs to the earth, the world. It teaches that nothing exists independently. The existence of all things is interdependent. Our existence depends on earth, air, water, and other forms of life. Just as our existence depends on and is conditioned by those things, they also are conditioned by our existence.
The more we realize that we are a part of both goose poop and billowy clouds, the more we will realize our Buddha Nature, our inherent wisdom, and escape our our essential ignorance. Goose poop and billowy clouds are expressions of us, and we are expressions of them. When the earth confirmed the Buddha's enlightenment, the earth was confirming itself, the Buddha was confirming himself and ourselves, as part of the Buddha and the earth, as the earth and Buddha are part of us.
OK, let's be honest. Difficult people are hard to love. Hard even to like. It's even worse if you have to work with them. You try your best to love them, like them, appease them, or ignore them, but it can be exceedingly challenging and can test the bounds of your patience and compassion. But I recently learned something that I think might help me (and you) the next time a difficult person makes your blood pressure skyrocket or causes you to bite so hard on your lip that it bleeds. It's this: Difficult people get sick and die, just like the rest of us.
And that means you are no longer entitled to see them as bigger, worse, lesser, or different than anyone else—including yourself. They can no longer be your comic-book-like anti-hero. You can no longer fix them as a symbol of inhuman evil. When a difficult person in your life dies, you finally have to accept them as a person just like yourself, just like the people you like or love.
Here's my story teaching...
My partner and I did business with a difficult person (referred to from now on as "DP") for the last 20-some years. We had a few out-and-out verbal battles, but mostly it was an on-the-surface polite and cordial business relationship, despite the difficulty. The DP was not only difficult (read: nearly impossible) to please in most cases, but was also disorganized in the presentation of information. This caused extra work with the almost expected pay-off of some sort of complaint or non-professional verbal communication (read: insulting comments and verbal mistreatment). If work came from DP, it was guaranteed to create days of stress and gnashing of teeth.
We were also aware that other peers/co-workers felt the same way about our subject DP, so information exchange took place on occasions when they too had to blow off a little steam over some altercation they had with DP. Essentially a myth was created around our DP and the DP took on a superhuman quality. DP became a caricature; a caricature of my own anger or annoyance in human form.
Then something happened. A week to the day of the last (and one of our worst) run-ins with DP, DP had a major traumatic health event and a couple of weeks after that, DP passed away. It was a shock, as a sudden illness and death always is: propelling you into an instant awareness of your own mortality and the fragileness of life. DP's death for me was also a very humbling, Dharma-teachable moment.
I had recently wished that DP would retire, quit, move, go away... anything so we wouldn't have to deal with the stress anymore. And DP did go away... to the hospital. And then DP went away permanently. I'm not saying my wish had anything to do with DP's medical event or death, but wow, timing like that can sure make you take notice of your own thoughts and initiate self-reflection.
When DP suffered, DP became a person again in my mind and the mythical protagonist was no longer to be found. Just another sentient being suffering and dying. And in DP's dying, a bright Dharma light of wisdom shined brightly on my anger, my imperfection, my ignorance. I was no longer the good guy wronged by the evil DP. I was another human pausing to notice another's illness and death—the future that awaits us all, even difficult people.
In creating my DP Super Anti-Hero, I forgot I was chiseling a character out of my own thoughts. And forgot that DP's behaviors are a result of causes and conditions and not coming from a fixed self or identity. In fact DP is empty of an inherent existence, despite my creation of an innately mean Super Anti-Hero with my thoughts. In creating a fixed DP self in my head, I created something that—if I had spent more time examining my thoughts and not DP's words and actions—I would have seen was against the very principles that "supposedly" guide my life as a Dharma practitioner. It was against the Four Marks of Existence, or the Four Seals of Dharma, which I've mentioned in this blog before, but will summarize again, in context:
1) All compounded things are impermanent. DPs come and go.
2) All emotions are painful. DPs cause me emotional distress and someone/something cause DPs emotional distress, too. But no matter how painful, theses emotions don't last and insults can't hurt me.
3) All phenomena are empty, without inherent existence. Nothing exists by itself, inherently. Nothing exists independently, or externally. All things are the object of a subject, so therefore without inherent existence. DPs aren't Super Anti-Heros. I create them as objects to my subject.
4) Nirvana is beyond extremes and is, therefore, peace. This means that, if you accept and keep the first four concepts as your worldview, you will be at peace. If I accept DPs as a human being, I may glimpse peace, because beings are inherently good, I believe.
I'm sure I will have to deal with more difficult people in my life. I'm also pretty sure that I will fail again and again to remain patient. But I hope that maybe I will remember that difficult people and me are the same: we both share anger, imperfection, ignorance, and impermanence.
In The Way of the Bodhisattva Master Shantideva teaches this with so much more literary grace. I will leave you the pertinent verses of his enlightened words from Chapter 6 on Patience:
Pain, humiliation, insults, or rebukes--
We do not want them
Either for ourselves or those we love.
For those we do not like, it's quite the opposite!
I'm not angry with my bile and other humors--
Fertile source of pain and suffering!
So why should I resent my fellow creatures.
Victims, too of like conditions?
Never thinking, 'Now I will be angry,'
People are impulsively caught up in anger.
Irritation, likewise, comes--
Though never plans to be experienced!
Every injury whatever,
The whole variety of evil deeds
Is brought about by circumstances.
None is independent, none autonomous.
Thus, when enemies or friends
Are seen to act improperly,
Be calm and call to mind
That everything arises from conditions.
If things occurred to living beings
Following their wishes and intentions,
How could sorrow ever come to them--
For there is no one who desires to suffer?
And if their faults are fleeting and contingent,
If living beings are by nature wholesome,
It's likewise senseless to resent them--
As well be angry at the sky for having clouds!
Although indeed it is the stick that hurts me,
I am angry at the one who wields it, striking me.
But he is driven and impelled by anger--
So it is his wrath I should resent.
Scorn and hostile words,
And comments that I do not like to hear--
My body is not harmed by them.
What reason do you have, O mind, for your resentment?
So like a treasure found at home,
Enriching me without fatigue,
All enemies are helpers in my bodhisattva work
And therefore they should be a joy to me.
Because of those whose minds are full of anger,
I engender patience in myself.
They are this the cause of patience,
Fit for veneration, like the Doctrine.
In honor of independence day, my friend Julie, a Yoga teacher, posted this question on her studio's Facebook page this week: “What do you consider the definitive moment or event of independence in your own life?”
I commented “When I completely accepted my interdependence.”
I wasn't being coy or purposely trying to answer with a Zen-like paradox. The comment popped out of me, as I was thinking about an experience I had a few years ago, in the first year of my Bright Dawn training. It is an experience I refer to as my Buddhist-Born-Again moment.
The experience was initiated by a story Rev. Al Bloom shared with our class about a woodpecker felling a gigantic tree after a few pecks. Feeling powerful, he thought, “Wow, I DID that!” What he didn't know was that there was a tree crew sawing down the very tree he was pecking at. Bloom Sensei used the story to illustrate the difference between the Shin Buddhist terms, Self Power (Jiriki) and Other Power (Tariki).
Hearing the story helped me finally grasp what had always been a “greased pig” for me. Just when I thought I understood Self Power and Other Power, I decided I really didn't understand it all. The understanding I had the evening of the class was a rational, self-power type understanding. Then, a few days later while meditating, I was overcome with a feeling of relief and complete trust, as if I had finally arrived somewhere.
I was thinking about that woodpecker and realized I was that woodpecker and had been completely unaware of the fact there was always a crew helping me. I describe the feeling I had at that moment as utter relief—so much so that I began to cry—almost as if I had just realized that someone or something saved my life. That cry was my personal declaration of interdependence, the most freeing experience in my adult life.
I have since come to see the experience with a wider perspective, realizing that for many years prior I had been deeply embroiled in Vajrayana and Tibetan Buddhist study and practice. I had taken up that path in the typical achievement-oriented way I had done everything in my life. I was convinced that I could perfect myself and become a Buddha, if I just had enough commitment and practiced harder and harder. The teachers I studied and took teachings from seemed to indicate that was the case. And, since there was not much in my life I hadn't been successful at if I really tried, then I thought I was capable of this, too.
But I became disillusioned and depressed when I didn't see any results. I was still the same person I had always been. I resigned myself to the fact that I was a Vajrayana flunky—and maybe even a Buddhist flunky. So I enrolled in the Bright Dawn Institute training to see if there was another way. And there was.
I finally learned what the Buddha taught. Now I see that one of—if not THE most important foundations of Buddhist practice—is becoming aware of your inherent ignorance and the limitations of self. It is surprisingly freeing to realize that we are NOT really the masters of our destiny, because the choices we make about the thoughts we will think and the actions we will take are a product of a complex web of experiences, surroundings, and relationship—of which everyone else is a part. This is a declaration of interdependence.
This declaration is stating that you understand and actively accept your own ignorance. It is a deep and personal understanding of the second Noble Truth, about the origin of suffering, and the first of the Eightfold Path, Right View.
It is a seeming paradox that accepting our ignorance can provide our ultimate freedom. It is the freedom Shinran and Honen discovered. This freedom is not won by ourselves, through our own actions to become a Buddha, but through an active acceptance that we aren't capable of doing much by ourselves at all—and that through trust in the Dharma, in the teachers that gave us the teachings, and in a broader trust in life and its web, we are always supported and given more than we are capable of giving back. In that humble, yet active acceptance that my teacher, Rev. Koyo, points to as “acceptance IS transcendence”, we are declaring our interdependence.
Recognizing that we can't do it by ourselves, we stop struggling. Like rolling over on your back and floating, rather than continuing to tread water when you become tired of swimming—the ability to float, this buoyancy, is a gift from life itself. Not something you created in yourself. It is a gift from those before you that taught you you COULD float.
Despite all our failures we are taken care of. If we look at this interdependence with gratitude and humility, we automatically loosen our grip on self grasping. We let the little self drop away and let all that we think we know become open to interpretation. No one to protect and nothing to defend. A freedom I've given the code name "the complete OK-ness of everything."
Happy Interdependence Day!
The Buddha sought answers to the questions we all have: Who are we? What are we doing here? Why are things the way they are? They are crazy-making questions that can either haunt or enlighten. One of my favorite lines in the television sitcom, Raymond, is delivered by Robert, Raymond’s TV brother, during an episode focusing on the same big question Raymond’s daughter was asking: “Why did God put us here?” Robert, in mental torment, looks to the sky and says: “You mean God made us smart enough to ask the question, but not smart enough to know the answer?!!”
I say yes, that's exactly the predicament we're in. But I don't think it has anything to do with God or our lack of intelligence. It's because there are no definitive answers. And because we really can't believe there aren't definitive answers "out there", our nature urges us to continuously ask the questions and, ultimately, continue the search for meaning.
In the book, Invisible Forces and Powerful Beliefs: Gravity, Gods, and Minds, The Chicago Social Brain Network reports, "Our drive to make meaning is irrepressible—when we do not understand the forces that drive our actions, we invent narratives that make these invisible forces feel more predictable and understandable, even if only in hindsight."
And, I believe, we want narratives that provide more than understanding alone. We want narratives that make us feel better about our lives. We cling to the concept that somehow we must have a grander purpose than what is evident in our everyday lives. Again, in Invisible Forces and Powerful Beliefs, they emphasize that our human nature insists that "actions of objects have causes, whereas actions of humans have reasons." This highlights the human need to find meaning in connecting to something beyond our little selves and our average, everyday lives. Yet, I rest in the confidence that Shakyamuni Gautama Buddha taught that the ONLY place for us to search for meaning is in our little selves and our average, everyday lives.
Shakyamuni taught that we should not accept anything on anyone's authority—not even his—but to verify it through our own experience. Personally, I am highly suspicious of anyone or any group that tells me what the meaning or purpose of my life is, how I should go about fulfilling that purpose, and what I should have "faith" in. As an out-of-the-closet skeptic, the use of the word "faith" itself raises my defenses. I am much more comfortable with the word "confidence". I believe and have confidence in what the Buddha taught because I've directly experienced it.
In the Bright Dawn, Kubose lineage, I learned that it is in my everyday where I will find meaning, if I awake to it—awakening to what is right in front of us; to things as they are. This direct experience of reality can provide us with a transcendent joy; joy that emerges from being in our lives 100%, without looking for something outside of us to provide meaning.
In the documentary, Examined Life by Astra Taylor, Princeton professor Cornel West suggested that we refuse the gratification of finding meaning. I interpreted his remark as an echo of Shakyamuni's teachings. Looking outside of ourselves for answers to why we're here and what the meaning of our lives are, provides a way out, or gratification to the uneasiness of sitting in the questions.
Searching for meaning beyond what your life brings you everyday is like believing the satisfying experience of a jigsaw puzzle is knowing what the picture is. The meaning of the jigsaw puzzle is not in the finished picture or design, but in placing the pieces.
Everyday meaning—meaning found in your own experience—shows up more dependably than new mail in your inbox. Just the fact that you have this life, this "precious human birth" (the first of the "Four Reminders" or the "Four Thoughts that Turn the Mind to the Dharma"), is meaning enough.
Everyday in our precious human lives we have a choice about how to make our day meaningful. Meaning is delivered to us everyday in everything we do, as soon as we wake up to what we're doing. Sometimes that choice may only be to "keep going" when circumstances make us question whether we can keep going. Sometimes it may be to keep starting; starting over and over again to be the person we want to be ... starting again today when the day before ended in a character failure of anger, selfishness, resentment, or disappointing a loved one.
My life has demonstrated to me that the search for meaning beyond what happens to me day-to-day is fickle. The things I think will provide meaning rarely do: the perfect holidays planned for, the job, the raise, the award, the vacation, the day off ... Meaning generally doesn't emerge from those planned-for experiences, but from the little moments of everyday life. Meaning has no fixed, inherent existence—in you or prescribed from a super being, outside of you.
Like all things, it is empty of a fixed, external, inherent existence. Like all things, meaning changes day-to-day because it is subject to the dynamic interplay of causes and conditions, including those of the people and things interacting with you in your life. And, because of that, meaning is given to you by others.
Immense satisfaction—or even meaningful great joy—arises when we are truly being IN our life; fully participating without anticipation, or avoidance, in the life given to us every day, as a part of a continuously-becoming emergent wholeness. To me, this is what, in Shin Buddhism, is the primary spiritual experience of "shinjin", a believing or entrusting heart. The Sanskrit word, "prasanna" expresses it as well. Prasanna roughly means "satisfied", "balanced", "serene", or "gracious". This balance is not founded on blind faith, but has a connotation of clarity—a clarity of mind—a mind that grasps what is, as it is; who we are, as we are. In that moment of grasping completely what is, we have discovered our meaning.
In Zen Shin Talks by Sensei Ogui, he relates a story that says all this much better in way fewer words than I have used here today. One hot summer he was watering the lawn and was approached by a young woman carrying a notepad. She asked, "Are you the Reverend?" He replied that he was and she went on to explain that she was interviewing clergymen about their thoughts on creation verses evolution. She asked Sensei, "What do you think about creation versus evolution?" He answered, "I'm watering the lawn because it's dying." She said, "I know! Answer my question!" But Sensei persisted through her frustration, explaining that he was answering her question and told her to write his answer down on her notepad.
We will find the meaning of life when we give up the search. Echoing the Zen Shin insight, from a Tibetan Buddhist perspective, Venerable Lama Gendun Rinpoche writes in his poem, Free and Easy: A Spontaneous Vajra Song:
"Wanting to grasp the ungraspable,
you exhaust yourself in vain.
As soon as you open and relax this tight fist of grasping,
Infinite space is there—open, inviting and comfortable.
Make use of this spaciousness, this freedom and natural ease.
Don't search any further.
Don't go into the tangled jungle
looking for the great awakened elephant,
who is already resting quietly at home
in front of your own hearth."
I admit to having a rubber-necker-type fascination with abnormal psychology. I've had it for as long as I remember. My father had bi-polar disorder (manic depression, back in the day) and I was fascinated with the way his mind worked. Even though his behavior caused pain and challenges to our family, the why and how of the way he thought captivated me.
In the last year or so, my rubber necking gaze fell on what seems to be an inordinate number of people preoccupied with doom, conspiracy theories, apocalypses, end times, vampires, and zombies. What is all this stuff about? And why does it seem to be everywhere in popular culture? TV shows like The Walking Dead, The Vampire Dairies, and the older 24. Movies like 2012 and books like the Christian end-times series of novels, Left Behind.
As a part of this peculiar "hobby" of mine, I started visiting conspiracy theory and doom forums on the Internet. On these forums, almost anything that happens anywhere in the world is immediately portrayed as having deeper, darker, more sinister forces at the core and hidden from the mainstream media (MSM in forum speak). A good majority of the forum posts start with "And so it begins...." or "Doom on".
The recent string of seemingly "unusual" animal deaths, starting with the blackbird and fish deaths in Arkansas on New Year's Eve, highlight this preoccupation with claiming surreal, supernatural, or sinister causes to unexplained phenomena. On first look, this type of doomsday thinking tends to indicate a very unnatural attraction to one's own demise. On further reflection, probably not.
I think in most cases (not including true suicidal types), it's more symptomatic OF the fear of death and dissatisfaction with the uncertainty of life, or the inability to come to terms with one of the Four Seals of Dharma, impermanence. The Four Seals of Dharma are:
1) All compounded things are impermanent. Compounded meaning containing parts that make up the whole. Everything in our world is compounded, including time and maybe space?
2) All emotions are painful. Sure there are emotions that produce pleasant sensations, like happiness and comfort, but they are painful because they don't last and because they create unrealistic expectations.
3) All phenomena are empty, without inherent existence. Nothing exists by itself, inherently. Nothing exists independently, or externally. All things are the object of a subject, so therefore without inherent existence.
4) Nirvana is beyond extremes and is, therefore, peace. This means that, if you accept and keep the first four concepts as your worldview, you will be at peace.
Accepting and seeing the world through the lens of these seals is the way of Dharma, following the teachings of the Buddha. Dharma is things as they are. Things as they are is the natural order of things and more like physics, than theology or religion.
It is clear, though, that we all have trouble accepting things as they are most of the time. Some of us have more trouble than others, sometimes things are easier to accept, and sometimes things are impossible to accept. That, too, is the natural order of things in the human condition. In the Dharma, we refer to this state of non-acceptance as ignorance.
Maybe one reason we are constantly on the lookout for answers—even bad ones—is biological. James Gorman points out, in his recent article, "Mass Animal Deaths: An Environmental Whodunit" (The New York Times), that "our minds have evolved to look for patterns, and causative agents" as "a survival mechanism". He writes that "some thinkers argue that this turn of mind...ended up predisposing humans to believe in a deity, because when we can't find a natural cause for an apparent pattern or event, we posit a supernatural one."
Another reason may be that to accept things as natural, or the way things are, can be dreary, boring, or downright depressing. It makes us feel much better to ascribe a grander purpose to the way things are, even if that grander purpose is an evil conspiracy or sheer doom. In the article "It's the End of the World, and We Love It" by Mark Moring (ChristianityToday magazine, 3/5/10), he reports that a movie critic speculated on a reason for the popularity of doom in entertainment as stemming from "an innate sense of justice". He quotes the critic as saying we have "a sense that all of us probably deserve calamity or worse. When an act of God is on display, we marvel at what we suspect (perhaps hope) is his sovereignty at work, wrathful and terrible through it may be."
I think it all points to wanting to be a part of something bigger than our little ego selves, even if that something bigger is disaster. David Brazier in the book, The Feeling Buddha, writes about a "big story" versus a "little story". He writes: "Real satisfaction arises when the little story is integrated into or even subsumed within a big story that is itself worthwhile." He continues, warning that, "if we do not deliberately give ourselves to a wholesome story, we will get caught up in an unwholesome one." Brazier says that a "big story brings a big task. The great work requires something of all of us. If we neglect this, then we remain trapped in our little stories. Modern society tends to operate in ways that isolate us in our littleness."
Natural disasters, wars, great evils of murder and mass murder, prophesies of a wrathful God allowing the total destruction of our planet and all its creatures, and the prevailing threat of terrorism bind us together in big stories. Sometimes these big stories lead to unwholesome responses: like wars to fight other wars, violence as a solution to violence or perceived injustice, the giving up of our rational compassion to an angry God, and wars to fight terrorism. These unwholesome responses illustrate how, in not giving ourselves to a wholesome story, we get caught up in unwholesome ones and isolate ourselves in our own littleness.
My own personal antidote to the very human feelings of isolation, aloneness, and littleness—and my reply to the cry in Peggy Lee's hit 1969-single, Is That All There Is?—is to keep dancing with the Dharma; living the Middle Way that avoids extremes of thought and actively embraces things as they are. This, as David Brazier reminds us, requires something of all us, yet binds us together in the web that contains all of us in things as they are.
Today’s koan is “No Cold and Heat” by Tozan (Blue Cliff Record Case 43: Dongshan’s Cold and Heat)
A monk asked Tozan “How can we escape the cold and heat?”
Tozan replied, “Why not go where there is no cold and heat?”
“Is there such a place?” the monk asked.
Tozan commented, “When cold, be thoroughly cold; when hot, be hot through and through.”
This koan points to a counterintuitive recommendation of action that can ultimately make us happier and more successful. That is, instead of avoiding circumstances that make us uncomfortable, we should turn toward them. Face them and walk right into and through them. Can you consider what might happen if you turned toward your discomfort, rather than avoiding it?
Another wording of the last line in this classic koan is, “When it is cold, let the cold kill you. When it is hot, let the heat kill you.” This does not imply that we walk into fire and burn to death, nor plunge into ice and die from hypothermia. It is trying to take you beyond the words; beyond the concepts; beyond the description that you have applied to your self and your circumstances.
The heat and cold in this koan represent the troubles and challenges we face in life. Our discomforts. Obviously, if we can easily escape, we do. But life sometimes presents problems that can’t be escaped. So, is there a place where there is no trouble? Tozan says there is.
That place is the place we arrive at when we become one with the discomfort or trouble that presents. When we do so, we emerge as the master, rather than the victim. This principle is the point of “being thoroughly cold” or “hot through and through.” This is how cold or heat will kill you and you will be happy about it. It will kill you when you forget about how cold or how hot you are; when you stop complaining about it and stop trying to avoid it. You will just do what you’re doing and be hot; be cold.
The “killing” is in the forgetting.
You will forget when you accept what is before you and take action. Instead of spending hours worrying about why something is happening to you or how you’re going to deal with what is happening to you, you will take action by accepting it. According to Gregg Krech of the ToDo Institute (http://www.todoinstitute.org/), who wrote the book The Art of Taking Action: Lessons from Japanese Psychology, taking action is “doing what needs to be done when it need to be done in response to the needs of the situation.”
Pretty simple, isn’t it? This “secret” derives from a model of psychology referred to as Morita Therapy. It is a therapy based in Zen and an Eastern worldview. Morita Therapy has four key elements:
1) Acceptance. When we are in situations that make us physically or emotionally uncomfortable, the first thing we do is to try to change or manipulate the circumstances. We find a way to escape. We escape through avoidance, resignation, and complaining, rather than accepting what is.
2) Avoidance. This is a strategy based on resistance, rather than acceptance. The problem with this strategy is that resistance, too, causes discomfort by our preoccupation with how to avoid and what we are avoiding.
3) Resignation. This sounds like acceptance—and it is what most of us with a Western worldview think of as acceptance. Resignation is a passive acceptance or depressed acceptance. It is the languishing in our negative feelings or procrastination.
4) Complaining. Complaining perpetuates our discomforts. As Gregg Krech wrote: “Who is hotter—a person who constantly complains throughout the day about how hot it is or a person who doesn’t complain?” Complaining reminds us, and those around us, of our discomfort, rather than helping us to focus on something else.
I worked with a client who told me a story about how she turned into her discomfort, her trouble, in a situation most of us would try to avoid, resign, or complain about. At the time of the story, my client was a department director at a major corporation. I will refer to her department as marketing and the corporation as a financial services leader. The marketing department had become very successful since she headed it. She was exceeding all goals and objectives and, at the same time, earning industry awards for innovative programs she developed and instituted.
A new COO moved in and wanted to institute Lean Six Sigma projects to identify where ROI could be improved across the corporation. He wanted to start with my client’s department as the initial Six Sigma pilot program. Now, my client’s first reaction, of course, was to feel unappreciated. Here she was, the most successful leader in the corporation bringing all sorts of good press and market visibility to the corporation, and he wanted to pick her operation apart.
Yet, my client was very wise. Instead of complaining, avoiding, or resentfully resigning, she embraced the program. She dove into Six Sigma methodology and steered the pilot to complete success. It was so successful that, not only did the ROI of her department’s programs improve, she became the corporation’s “go-to” for Six Sigma leadership and, ultimately, a highly visible and in-demand presenter on Six Sigma in marketing and Six Sigma in the financial services industry.
This brings us back to acceptance. As my Sensei, Rev. Koyo Kubose teaches, “Acceptance IS transcendence.” The only way to transcend your discomfort is by actively accepting things as they are. This is NOT resignation! The word for this is arugamama, meaning “to accept things as they are.”
When we accept things as they are, we stop wasting time wishing things were some other way … wishing the people around us were different … wishing we were different … wishing our boss was different or our job was different. This state of arugamama is the same quality of non-resistance taught in marital arts.
When an opposing force is strong, direct resistance is ineffective, but if you don’t resist, the force flows through us and back to its source.
When you’re unhappy, anxious, or worried, accept and move forward. We can move forward now because we aren’t trapped by our thoughts. We have forgotten ourselves (“killed” ourselves) and moved on to the task at hand. Gregg Krech writes that “acceptance—of our internal human condition as well as external conditions— is at the very heart of action.”
Something happened in the last few years that knocked me off my true course. I let go of the anchor rope to introversion and drifted away from my inner compass. I can't identify the specific causes; it may have been the perfect storm of conditions. I can, however, see how easy it is to happen in today's world, compared to life 20 years ago.
I used to snicker like a smug geek when my accountant would comment on why he didn't "do" email. He said that it created unnecessary urgency. I think that is part of what caused me to lose my connection to myself: an unnecessary sense of urgency that oozes into life at every seam.
"Urgent" opportunities to do almost anything you can imagine: study any subject instantly; try new activities; communicate with anyone, anywhere; and—my preferred drug of choice—the ability to know what's going on at any moment, 24/7, in all corners of the globe. All that potential is seductive. Come out, come out, it calls. And if you don't heed the siren call of unlimited possibilities in today's always-on world, there is a little nagging feeling that maybe you missed something.
But recently, the nagging feeling of missing something was replaced by a stronger sense of disease that what I missed was me. I wasn't even sure who me was anymore, because I hadn't checked in on myself in so long. I used to find out what I was thinking about through journaling, writing poetry, and reading. None of which I have done with any regularity in awhile. Instead, I've been living "out there."
I have always identified myself as an introvert, but since allowing myself to be blown off course, I felt like an outsider, an outsider to myself. Introversion is turning inward. Extroversion (or extraversion) is turning outward. Turning in is focusing on the world of thoughts and ideas; turning out is focusing on things, people, and activities.
I shouldn't delve into a world of psychology I know very little about, but I believe it is accepted that we are not one or the other (introvert or extrovert), but fluctuate between the two, with one more dominant than the other. That seems true to me. I can have very extroverted days and periods, but I am more comfortable, more at home, when I am turned or "tuned" in to the world inside my head and heart.
"Know thyself" and the "unexamined life isn't worth living" is not just Socratic advice for living. Looking inside and quietly examining your own mind, or just sitting--giving up your hold on your thoughts—is at the core of secular and Buddhist mindfulness and meditative practices...and the reason why people of all ages and at all times seek the quiet, reflective peace found during a walk alone in nature.
The Tibetan word for Buddhist is “Nangpa” or “insider.” Dharma teaches that you can only find peace and happiness by looking inside, by examining and getting to know how your mind works, so that you can interrupt the habitual mental tendencies that lead to unhappiness.
But in today's world, the solitude required to look inside is less and less valued. So much so it seems many people just can't "do" solitude. We live in a culture that respects and encourages everything that is not solitude. It promotes constant visibility and getting yourself out there: joining teams and groups, creating bigger and bigger professional and personal networks, attracting hundreds or thousands of Facebook friends and Twitter followers.
Yet, in the ultimate sense, in the terms of "things as they are", we are alone. We came into this life alone and leave it in the same way. And, in the time in between, we do everything we can to forget our ultimate aloneness—pretending it's not so.
Sometimes it's not that we are purposely leaving our inner life behind, but we just forget about it. In the book, Introvert Power: Why Your Hidden Life is Your Hidden Strength, by Laurie Helgoe, PhD, she writes: "We get busy, and the more distant solitude becomes, the more we avoid it.... It may be a fear of coming down from the stimulation."
I confess that this helps explain what happened to me. Although I knew I needed to stop and disengage from "out there", whenever I tried I was like a kid with ADD—my body and mind revolted. Solitude can be uncomfortable at first. Those of you who practice meditation are familiar with that uncomfortableness when remembering the first few times you tried to meditate.
Writing is like that too. We remember we like it, but when we try to get into again after a long absence, it feels awkward. We feel bored, not used to being stimulated from the outside-in, rather than the inside-out. But if, like me, you stick to the "practice of solitude" your dedication will pay off. You will be reacquainted with the joy—yes, joy—and energy in the treasure you left buried inside.
Stop now and sit, for 15 or 20 minutes, with a koan, a poem, or an idea for a new creative project. Immerse yourself in your own mind, in the stimulation of ideas, and—like the most addictive video game or computer activity—you will be hooked back into yourself after a few times of adventurously exploring your inner landscape. You may be surprised at what you find.
As Walt Whitman suggests in his enlightenment narrative, Song of Myself, celebrate and sing yourself. Loaf and invite your soul...
About these blog posts
A mix of older posts I wrote for the blog, Suchness: It's All Good - Buddhist Ramblings, LinkedIn articles, and Career Coaching blog posts.